Wither the American orchestra?
Nothing could be further from the truth for Michael Pastreich, chief executive officer of The Florida Orchestra, which this weekend offers its final masterworks program of the season. Yes, many orchestras around the country struggle to stay alive, but the Bay area’s largest performing arts organization plays a different tune.
Ticket sales continue to grow. More young people are showing up in the concert hall. Fresh faces keep appearing at the podium. During and after the recession, the endowment increased by 70 percent and the board of directors tripled its out-of-pocket contributions. And let’s not forget the musicians, who enjoy playing a diversity of works for the first time, rather than repeating the standards. What’s going on here?
A crescendo of inventive thinking.
“Orchestras aren’t becoming irrelevant, at least those that are innovative,’’ Pastreich says from the orchestra’s office in downtown St. Petersburg. “There are orchestras out there that struggle, but there’s also a long list of ones that are thriving, just like banks and newspapers are struggling or thriving. The question is how innovative you want to be, and the quality of the work you do.’’
Looking back over the current season, a testament to quality is apparent: The musicians had to adjust to more than a dozen guest conductors, each vying for the open position of music director. The orchestra played consistently well through this revolving door of styles and approaches. The final candidate of the season appears tonight and Saturday when guest conductor Joshua Weilerstein leads the orchestra in works by Franz Joseph Haydn, Toru Takemitsu, and Maurice Ravel.
“It will be nice to have some consistency,’’ says Pastreich of the constant change at the podium. “The goal is to have a new music director by June 2015. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we hire someone before then. The challenge is that we have such a variety of extraordinary conductors to choose from.’’
Landing a new leader is only one facet of the orchestra’s transformation. In the past few years, the group has been active recruiting new audiences by reinventing its image. This season’s focus on target groups (meaning young people) included programs featuring the music of Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Eagles, while another showcased music and visuals from the world of video games. It also began offering a series of Morning Masterworks, so people could enjoy coffee and doughnuts over Copland and Dvorak.
Another change can be seen, and heard, in the balance of the so-called heavyweight programs. For years, the group relied on the core of the 19th century European repertoire and rarely delved into the music of living composers. Some of the same war horses popped up so frequently it seemed the musicians could play them from memory. Over the current season and next year, the band will perform 27 works for the first time.
To further encourage attendance, the orchestra did something unthinkable: it dropped rather than increased its ticket prices. The result? More people. Next season offers another twist: free admission to anyone 18 and younger who attends a masterworks concert with a paying adult. The premise is to get more families out of the house and into the concert hall.
“We lose when people stay home because they have children,’’ Pastreich says. “The idea is to encourage people with children at home to come to the hall and bring them.’’
All of this is part of the orchestra’s strategy to be more accessible, to create a dialog with the community, to remain culturally relevant, and to shed the myth of the orchestra as a museum full of aging relics. By making it more attractive to younger people, Pastreich says, the orchestra will build its support base for the future. The plan must be working because over the last year, total paid attendance has increased by 30 percent.
“By all standards, these are incredible numbers,’’ he says. “Overall, attendance for orchestras, operas, ballets, baseball, and football is declining. But this orchestra is going the other way.’’